When Thai red-shirt opposition protesters spilled their own blood at key locations in Bangkok, they were not just making a show for the TV cameras, as Vaudine England has found out
Many Thais and Westerners were revolted by the spectacle and worried by the hygiene implications of the recent blood-spilling on Bangkok’s streets.
Some denounced the sheer wastefulness of a precious resource which could have been used to help the sick.
But red-shirt leaders said the blood spilling was a sacrifice for democracy and a curse on the government.
In the battle for Thailand’s political soul – played out over several years by “yellow” and “red” waves of protesters – symbolism is probably the most important weapon.
A powerful belief in astrology and the supernatural (saiyasat) co-exists alongside an increasingly commercial, globalised culture.
This is not just a frame of mind found in far-flung rural areas. Many of the country’s top leaders, civilian and military, have actively participated in magical rituals to seek special powers and enlist them on their side.
A leading historian of Thailand, Chris Baker, and top economist and political analyst Pasuk Phongpaichit, have produced a paper entitled The spirits, the stars, and Thai politics.
It outlines several instances of serious consultation by leading political figures – from former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to the generals who led the coup against him in 2006 – with astrologers, spirit mediums and supernatural forces.
It details events such as damage to specific shrines and the smashing of a statue at the famous Erawan shrine in central Bangkok as efforts to either harness or distract spiritual forces at times of political tension.
“Of course this is not new; but there does seem to be a definite correlation between periods of military rule and upsurges of interest in supernatural influences on Thai politics,” the authors wrote.
One of the key complaints among red-shirt protesters against the current government of prime minister Abhisit Vejajjiva is that the military was hand-maiden to its formation, and the military is what keeps Abhisit in power.
His retreat to the headquarters of the 11th infantry battalion all last week while red-shirts protested may only have reinforced this point.
A stroll through red-shirt territory in Bangkok, where thousands of protesters are still camped out, shows most men wearing many large amulets – considered a force of special protection at any time, but particularly in risky situations.
More dramatically, analysts recall the incident of October 2008 when a group of women supporting the red-shirts’ rivals, the yellow-shirted People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), offered up their sanitary napkins around the equestrian statue of King Rama V.
PAD leader Sondhi Limthongkul explained this was to counter attempts to sabotage the power of the statue to protect the nation – harnessing the perceived negative cosmic force of female blood to counteract, or un-do, the allegedly evil acts of others.
“For many years past, the powers of many sacred things have been suppressed by evil people using magic,” Sondhi wrote at the time.
“I must thank the women of the PAD because they took sanitary napkins from menstruating women and placed them on the six points (around the statue).
“Experts said that the spirit adepts were furious because their magic was rendered ineffective.”
He cited symbolic centres of nationhood as being under threat – and appeared to believe that blood had helped to fend off the danger.
Cosmically therefore, when the leaders of the red-shirted United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) created ceremonies to spill blood at the entrances to the seat of government, it was intended as a powerful curse.
It could also be seen as an act to counter the perceived illegitimacy of that government – and Abhisit who leads it – when the blood was spilled outside his home.
That is not how the government chose to see it, of course.
“The world sees some people in Thailand as believers in black magic and as uncivilised,” deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban, who is in charge of national security, said.
“Blood is a symbol of violence and hurling it at the house is saddening. The prime minister is speechless over this incident,” a minister in the prime minister’s office, Satit Wongnhongtaey, told reporters.
But just as the red rallies were kicking off at the beginning of the week, one local paper chose to give most of its page two over to a feature about a veteran policeman proudly showing off his collection of amulets and the supernatural forces he calls into play to help solve crimes.
Days of the week are associated with particular colours, certain numbers are significant and layers of symbolism abound.
One red-shirt protester told the BBC he felt his donation of blood was akin to forging a bond of blood brotherhood with fellow protesters as ancient warriors have done.
But the point of politicians employing certain rituals, Pasuk and Baker say, is to harness and accumulate power.
“The ability to influence events through supernatural forces is a form of power.” – BBC